Closing the door on the gatekeeper role in PR

At a Sustainable Conversations event earlier this week (organised by Kantar Media), I started to think about the impact on both public relations and journalism of ongoing communications changes. In particular, it is clear neither occupation can maintain their traditionally exclusive roles as ‘gatekeepers’ in filtering and controlling the flow of information that is communicated to publics.

With anyone and everyone potentially able to express an opinion and be listened to, many of the taken-for-granted aspects of the PR-media relationship are challenged, opening the gate with some interesting outcomes.

To those of us who have been engaged in digital communications for sometime, this is nothing new. But it was clear at this event that for mainstream media and many of those working in strategic organisational communications, the implications of the disruption to the normal modus operandi have only just hit home. Here are a few points from the debate on the day that I would like to explore in conversation here.

The world is complicated and messy

It was fascinating to finally hear researchers acknowledge this fact. This is important because dominant communications theories, and research perspectives, tend to present the world in a positivist way where linear processes and quantitative data help simplify people and trends. As a result, decisions are made in organizations and by individuals on the basis of information that does not really describe how the world works.

As an example, much of the communications activity by journalists and PR practitioners in relation to car purchasing is based on data which presents an average of 2-3 months between someone becoming aware of a need and closing the deal. The familiar, hierarchy of effects type of model that shows a nice, orderly flow of cognition to behaviour over a predictable period of time. Well, in reality, that only applies to very few people, even if the average still comes out at this length. There are a significant group of people today making their car purchasing decisions in 1-2 weeks, with another major grouping getting caught in a decision loop that extends their buying period into many months. Digital communications help both of these groups – although the latter are perhaps none the wiser despite, or maybe because, of the amount of information they can access.

The analogy of a game of snakes and ladders was used by Andy Turton – Global Development Director, TNS Global Automotive Practice. If you’re not familiar with the game, the idea is that communications can offer a ladder up the decision making process, or serve to set you back several steps as you slip back down a snake. So what does this mean for PR communications? It reinforces the need to be personal and avoid making general assumptions, that rely on data if it doesn’t allow you to look for nuances, variations, differences and most importantly, the meaning of information. It’s about intelligence not simply statistics.

People think in pictures

Today’s journalists and PR practitioners are primarily verbal communicators. We like words and writing things down. But, as the rise of Pinterest has shown – aided by our mobile devices all being equipped with cameras – people are increasingly able to capture their thoughts and express themselves using imagery. TNS had used this in research that asked people to diarise their car buying decision making by taking photographs – which revealed how much visual impressions affect our thinking and behavioural patterns.

It was also interesting to hear from Chas Hallett, editor-in-chief of What Car? magazine (owned by Haymarket), who talked about how good photographs drive interest in editorial coverage. Indeed, data shared at another event a few weeks ago by Newspress, which manages the media websites for most UK based car companies, revealed that press releases supported by a greater number of images get more attention and greater usage. Again, perhaps not a new observation – but I’m surprised at the number of PR practitioners and organisations which are only just looking at infographics and other visual devices as part of their communications. I believe there is huge potential here to shift corporate communications much more into the visual – including video – and this requires PR practitioners and journalists to gain new skills sets. As Chas said, when recruiting motoring journalists, he is looking for those who are comfortable in front of a camera, and behind it, not just at a keyboard.

Digital is driving future communications

Here the thinking relates to how new platforms (including tablets) are influencing how information is communicated from the outset, not as an afterthought. With more and more ways of accessing information (and at another event I attended recently, there was heated debate about adapting to mobile trends), content can’t be clunky. The more traditional means of communicating are being affected by the design and other changes that are necessary to make the most of multi-media and transmedia opportunities. In part, this indicates the death of long-form journalism (and certainly the 100 page new car press pack of my early career is no more). There is more information available, but it has to be presented increasingly in bite-sized means. Those of us who like to write long, need to consider if our passion is sustainable. But the good news is that the skills we require in writing punchy headlines, quotes and so on reflect a strength that is welcomed in social media communications. Brevity is important – but equally, the dominance of digital makes words critically valuable. Journalists – like PR practitioners – need to be aware of how search engines operate and balance the tricks required with quality writing. This extends into the earlier point also about imagery as people increasingly find YouTube and other visual stimuli are presented in Google searches, often above text summaries. Tagging and emerging visual search technologies demand our attention.

The personal is public and vice versa

Again not a new topic for us at PR Conversations, but something that many professional communicators are just realising. How do you balance the needs of maintaining trusted brand status (either personally or for an organisation) in an always on, open gate world? Are you prepared to work 24/7/365 and how are issues such as flaming attacks being handled by organisations to protect their employees? Too many issues to explore here, but definitely relevant when you act as a gatekeeper in an environment when anyone and everyone can be talking about you.

People today are different – but the same

Looking at trends in modern living, and expectations of younger people, challenges the metaphors that professional communicators have successfully ingrained in the promotional society. Henry Tucker, Director, The Future Company, explained how car companies in the last century used their marketing communications (including public relations) to influence societal and individual expectations that they could be free and independent in their lives. Although the open road of the car advert is less like our experience than urban gridlock and increasing cost of ownership (UK petrol panic anyone?), these promotional messages underpin the way we interact online. He said that individuals view their social media networks as an extension of their personal space and presence in society. We are looking at technology, brands, products and services as needing to fulfill such needs and fit into our lifestyles – we’re not keen on compromise and want freedom in how we do things (even if our wants are complicated, messy and contradictory).

In countries where people are becoming more affluent, there is no linear progression up a social scale, but expectations that reflect how personal lifestyles are being affected. Likewise, the ‘lost generation’ of young people have found the world is not how they were promised it would be – and respond with decreased loyalty to the old ways of doing things. Or do they? At the same time as this distrust is often expressed about brands, governments and so on, people are turning to others as trusted sources of information. That is less and less likely to be the traditional gatekeeper, but it was interesting to hear that Rogers’ diffusion of innovation may still have some relevance. Discussing the launch of the Toyota Prius and other issues relating to communicating complex issues (environment, technology, etc), there were evidently still innovators and early adopters who pave the way – and increasingly influence – those who are more cautious and likely to follow.

Tying up all these points, it is clear that as communicators we are faced with many challenges and opportunities – that people are thinking more personally, but trust those they let within their complicated and messy worlds – that they are able to express themselves more and more in visual terms and this is done on a global platform (reaching out to personal networks) at potentially any time of day or night.

So whether you are a quick decider or need someone to help you through your decision process, the chances are, you are no longer reliant on the traditional PR/journalist gatekeeper. Whether or not this closes the door on these occupations is debatable. So what do you think?

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7 Responses to “Closing the door on the gatekeeper role in PR”
  1. toni muzi falconi says:

    I like this post: clear and con-vincing.

    As prc readers know the 2010 stockholm accords (mostly based on sven hamrefors’ thinking) are based on the aknowledegement that the world is complicated and messy and that organizations create value through fuzzy and immaterial internal/external relationship networks.

    On the ‘people think in pictures’ issue I have often wondered if my generation even succeeded in absorbing the television set…..

    On the rest I am entirely in agreement. In only a few years media relations (in the sense of manistream) will not account for more than 30% of our professional time (they have gone from 60 to 40% in the last ten years…).

    The gatekeeper role is doomed and we must accelerate our reintermediation process (see stockholm accords, early thoughts on the melbourne mandate and the recent page society building beliefs paper).

  2. Jean Valin says:

    Great post Heather.

    PR is indeed messy and there are so many new intracacies in our profession as compared to twenty years ago. Forget any sense of control except for promoting events and then forget about controlling things if something goes viral in abad way. You learn nowadays to manage and react better with an ever-increasing array of tools, each requiring mastery and understandign of its own idio-syncracies.

    Makes for a messy PR life but interesting times. I think Snakes and ladders is good imagery for the profession as a whole !

  3. Paul Seaman says:

    Here are the trends as I see them:

    Web 2.0 is dead: that was back when we all consumed services through a browser on a computer.

    Welcome, as Keith Teare says, to the new, app-based, message-centric mobile Internet.

    That means PRs focused on Facebook and similar social media are behind the curve: advertising (a page based ad, whether text, display or anything else) is simply the wrong monetization vehicle.

    In short, Facebook is stuffed because it has no business model going forward. And, anyway, the new cool is elsewhere…. Facebook is what people did in the Noughties… and what oldies still do.

    Clicktivism is also yesterday’s form of mass protest… that’s a trend few corporates have spotted (they are always behind the curve, unfortunately)

    Can’t agree with Jean Valin: Contrariwise…The more messy things get; the more important it becomes to control what you can centrally and tightly… in other words our communication must be anything but fuzzy.

    Premium content is making a comeback…. even in print….. paywalls will live; so long as they deliver value.

    Heather’s right about picture… faces, animation in High definition are going to be the new means of promotion; not least because advertising intrusion does not work on the mobile format – so expect the lines between PR and marketing to become even more blurred and creative.

    BUT: PR pros should not put too much effort into the mobile space by trying to push a round peg through a square hole. In other words, mobile is not the next big thing in PR…

    Mobile satisfies the need for instant human grooming and connection… but marketing can do more with its limited peer-to-peer format than PR can…

    Games, Gambling and Girls, including Dating, remain central to mobile content. (that’s nothing to with empowerment)

    PR needs to get more gravitas and bottom than it has ever had before…… And content remains KING and consumers use different media for different things…. and it is understanding that and getting that balance right that will count most in future.

  4. Think Paul is right: consumers use different media for different things, so striking the right balance is ever more crucial. Sometimes it is a good picture or well-branded, targeted infographic; sometimes it is the right campaign on the right social platform; other times it’s a combination of many things, high-quality content in easy-to-digest McNugget form.

    We certainly do look to technology to make changes in our lives, for work or play. Some end up ‘working’ for the technology and platforms, others make it work for them. It is a hot mess – but only if we let it. I think we complicate things ourselves, too many choices without enough balance. Sometimes ‘no’ is the right move.

    Gates, ladders, funnels – communications isn’t a conduit, broadcasting and streaming isn’t communicating. There is much more to communications, to PR than pushing send. The gatekeeper role is fading, and while I see that anyone can do it, not everyone can do it well. Education, expertise, experience will always play a factor in success – esp. since as you say these issues present opportunities as much as challenges. FWIW.

  5. Paul Seaman says:

    I should have said more clearly that PR’s gatekeeping role becomes more important the more messy and more decentralised some aspects of the media get. Case studies in support of my point being Google; Facebook; Apple; and the Chinese government.

    Put another way: when there’s a load of noise in cyberspace or the marketplace, your corporate noise needs to speak clearly. That requires drawing clear demarcation lines that stand out, which requires keeping control. Otherwise you end up in a fuzzy immaterial mess. The genius of Steve Jobs was to grasp the new world of new media and then to apply old-fashioned wisdom to it: ditto Google etc.

    The move to mobile and the death of both Web 2.0 (including Google’s business model) and the desktop marks a turning point… it will be even harder for PRs to intervene meaningfully – beyond outliers – in the mobile space (advertisers too will struggle…but our marketing colleagues might do rather better) than it was in Web 2.0.

  6. Thanks for the comments. The online/mobile trends are certainly continuing to develop and both PR and marketing functions will need to find a way to continue to communicate to, with and in response to, various publics. I tend to agree that some of the developments favour marketing as the access point – particularly when a commercial/exchange relationship is the key to connection (and data seems to show that to be true both for the late majority eg in Facebook and a younger WIIFM – what’s in it for me – generation). Despite all the talk about authenticity, engagement, building loyalty through relationships and so forth (more the natural stance of PR), this will probably be the minority of connections apart from those who are true fans (or haters) of a brand/organization. You’ve got to care enough either way to want to have that sort of relationship.

    The challenges for developing commercial relationships seem to me to be (a) the need for endless creativity to capture attention and get results (some of which can be generated by PR practitioners as part of a content/publicity machine) and (b) the resistance of publics to (a) if not done well. People are beginning to control their own ‘gate’ so it has shifted from PR/journalists as ‘gatekeepers’ to individuals deciding what to let into their world.

    On the gatekeeper topic, I agree with some aspects of Paul’s argument for more control – and wonder what form this might take. Are we talking about PR as a concierge type of gatekeeper – friendly, helpful and a useful source for what is going on in the organization and its extended area of expertise? Or are we envisaging PR as a bouncer on the door (which seems in part to be Paul’s suggestion)? Or is there another image of the gatekeeper that we think is PR’s future role?

  7. Paul Seaman says:

    Good questions, Heather. Here’s some pointers from my notebook:

    The future won’t take the form of PRs becoming ideological governors of value networks (see my Stockholm Accords critique and writing on the utopian vision of value networks among PR dreamers who don’t grasp the nuances of modern developments).

    But the Stockholm Accorders do raise a useful point: we shall have to draw a clearer line between the collegiate corporate position and the personal one. Hence the likes of Neville Hobson who want corporate SM-based communication (from blogging and Facebook to Twitter) to become more personal are heading off in the wrong direction.

    Contrariwise: I say the corporate line and image needs to become more demarcated and formal, not less; though there is plenty of room for exceptions. But Apple has shown how the old-fashioned formal and clearly distinguished PR/positioning makes for great success in the new media world of the crowd.

    Corporations have a right to expect loyalty and they have a right to punish betrayal – expect that right to be exercised more often (that trend is growing all ready, but more so reactively than in a thought-through manner – so we PRs need to get one step ahead).

    Therein lies a difficult challenge for internal comms when it comes to positioning staff as brand ambassadors… I maintain corporate internal comms folks have been breeding cynicism and lacking in honesty – both to staff and more importantly their employers – about what can be achieved: there’s a credibility gap between lived experience and the hype that’s done a disservice to our clients.

    Meanwhile, We’ve had mainframe; mini-computer; desktop; internet and now mobile comms.

    We shouldn’t underestimate what’s about to happen to mass peer-peer communication and what that will mean for social media as we know it…

    it is an arena that will block advertisers and PR, but which might well favour promotions of multiple varieties… it would seem that neither facebook not google knows how to make money from mobile (witness the risky purchase of Instagram for $1 billion by Facebook…oh, dear)…. google and facebook could both well become like Yahoo and Myspace (diminished and then irrelevant)… the battle is on.

    Yes, the move to mobile does mean as Jean Valin says that corporates won’t have much control over the noise in the mobile realm… and, we shouldn’t try to impose ourselves on it either, says I.

    We must acknowledge that there is even a new dimension and threat to all this that does potentially give consumers a bottom-up power to project their point of view, connect and act with immediacy and potentially on a vast scale, that’s sort of Web 2.0ish…

    but then again, mobile is about more atomisation and fragmentation than’s ever been seen before. It certainly not about collectivisation; not even to the degree to which Web 2.0 was. So that tempers and contains the threats…. (but we’d better become better monitors of trends, and spotters of early signs and developments… but I reckon we’ll still get caught by surprise more often than not)

    In reality: mobile about and is likely to stay mostly focused on Play, Girls, Gaming and Gambling and Dating..

    meanwhile, Web 2.0 clickitivism has turned to slacktivism… and cynicism…. Obama is all the poorer for that, and perhaps he was its catalyst. Though Kony shows it’s not quite dead yet.

    The general principle is – the more messy and atomised things get in cyber space and society, the more power accrues to those who old their nerve and keep control over what they can hold on to … so if mobile equals atomisation, good PR in response requires more centralisation than ever….. and to be more rooted in a solid culture than has been the general case in recent years.

    Amusingly, just as corporations have mastered SM… its high tide is receding…. the show is moving off in another direction…. this time its mobile.

    The good news is that integrity, honesty, formality and other old-fashioned virtues and values are going to make a come back… (and we should encourage that process) as is good quality content and the value of paid-for services….

    So corporate comms and strategy are set to become mission critical…

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